By Ian Aikens | July 31, 2020
Does passing a law translate into making the public safer? Or does it just seem like it might make us safer but actually do nothing but feed entrenched special interests and make us all a little poorer?
This is the issue that came to mind when I noticed an article recently about 3 men charged in Nashua with passing mandated annual vehicle inspections without performing them. Should anyone be surprised that this kind of hanky panky goes on? Is it not a corollary that when government programs are created, corruption and fraud fly in the door?
First a little bit of history. Car inspections actually date back to 1931 and RSA 266:1, II. Amazingly, cars were required to be inspected twice a year, but the mandate was reduced to once a year back in the 1980’s. There have been numerous legislative attempts over the years to do away with these mandated inspections, or at least reform them to make them every other year or exempt new cars, but all to no avail.
Special interests are not about to let a good thing slip through their revenue-seeking fingers. The New Hampshire Auto Dealers Association and AAA Northern New England both strongly support mandated annual inspections. Unsurprisingly, the former has made political campaign contributions of $490,000 to New Hampshire legislators over the last 21 years, and I doubt it did so out of the goodness of its heart.
From 1967-1976, the federal government could withhold highway funds from states that didn’t have annual inspection programs. There were 31 states that complied with this carrot-and-stick “encouragement,” but when the law was changed in 1976, gradually one state after another dropped their inspection programs. To this day, only 16 states still have the inspection programs.
To get to the heart of the issue, do mandated annual inspections actually prevent car crashes and save lives? The repair shops scream “Yes!” whenever a state rep even brings up the issue. However, a 2015 study from the US Government Accountability Office – which gets no guaranteed revenue from these mandated programs – did not find any conclusive evidence that the inspections prevented car crashes. The report stated that “estimates derived from data collected by the Department of Transportation (DOT) National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that vehicle failure is a factor in about 2 to 7 percent of crashes.” It found that driver error was by far the biggest cause of accidents.
It’s also noteworthy that the report found that oversight of state programs is a big problem because of concern that some inspection stations recommend unnecessary repairs while others pass vehicles that really do have safety issues. So apparently the incident in Nashua is not an isolated one.
It is interesting to note that of the 16 states with the mandated programs, all but one state participated in the study. You guessed it: New Hampshire. The study notes on page 26 of its report, “We conducted structured interviews with officials in 15 of the 16 states that currently have a safety inspection program. We attempted multiple times to speak with the one remaining state – New Hampshire – but were unsuccessful.” Similarly, when You Asked, We Answered from New Hampshire Public Radio asked the New Hampshire Division of Motor Vehicles (a bureaucracy within the Department of Safety), which actually runs the state program, “Why does New Hampshire require annual auto inspections?” it took numerous attempts to get anyone from the DMV to interview for the story. When they finally got an answer, the response was, “All vehicles register(ed) in New Hampshire are required to be inspected once a year per RSA 266:1, II.” Pitiful.
Furthermore, federal vehicles are exempt from New Hampshire’s inspection program, plus there are always out-of-state vehicles on New Hampshire highways (which may or may not have been through an inspection program) due to its popularity as a vacation destination, so at any given time there will always be uninspected cars on our highways. Do they also pose a danger to the public?
Despite the lack of evidence of the safety benefit of the annual inspections – not to mention the cost, which to those on the lower rung of the economic ladder is yet another burden to bear – there will always be the “If it saves a life” crowd proclaiming the sanctity of keeping the program intact. If they truly meant what they say, then all cars would have to be banned from the roads because the number of people killed in car accidents each year consistently runs from 30,000-40,000 in this country. Obviously, we need to balance the benefits of car travel that we all enjoy against the small risk that each of us faces every time we step inside a car. It is simply impossible to eliminate all risk and ensure complete safety, and any attempt to do so would be completely ludicrous.
Finally, I need only to point to California, where I used to live. When I purchased a new car here, I was amazed that the car had to go through the annual inspection. Even back in California, which doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to extracting every last bit of blood and money from its residents, they don’t have annual car inspections, just a smog check every 2 years. Trust me, California is really into the safety business – San Francisco even has a 30-foot social distancing and mask ordinance in force and they’re not shy about issuing citations too – so, if the bureaucrats don’t require them, annual car inspections really are worthless.
Green, Rick. (2019, October 14). New effort unveiled to ease vehicle inspection law. Retrieved from www.laconiadailysun.com/news/local/new-effort-unveiled-to-ease-vehicle-inspection-law/article_ec53a4f4-ec71-11e9-b428-bb9940c67883.html
McDermott, Casey. (2017, July 28). You Asked, We Answered: Why Does N.H. Still Require Annual Car Inspections? Retrieved from www.nhpr.org/post/you-asked-we-answered-why-does-nh-still-require-annual-car-inspections#stream/0
New Hampshire Union Leader. (2020, June 19). Three men charged after allegedly selling inspection stickers without inspecting cars. Retrieved from www.unionleader.com/news/crime/three-men-charged-after-allegedly-selling-inspection-stickers-without-inspecting-cars/article_229deda8-1fe8-548f-8305-6383c1408474.html
United States Government Accountability Office. (2015, August). VEHICLE SAFETY INSPECTIONS – Improved DOT Communication Could Better Inform State Programs. Retrieved from www.gao.gov/assets/680/672131.pdf